Controlling Fear, Part 1;
Fear is an emotion that we have to learn to deal with when working with young horses. The horse and rider will often communicate anxiety, or even outright fear, to each other. While fear is an important "attention getting" emotion, it can get in the way of learning.
The handler must realize that the horse uses fear to protect himself in his wild environment. One horse in the group senses danger and they all immediately become alert and ready to flee. In fact the flight in itself can be an exhilarating experience for the horse, reinforcing "spook and run" behavior.
Fear is something which a vervous rider can easily convey to a horse. Just about anyone who has been around horses for very long recognises this. What many people don't realize is that horses can teach humans how to master fear. Prey animals can't spend their entire lives in terror, so they have to be able to manage this emotion. We can learn from them in this regard.
Dan was hitched alongside a large and very experienced wheel horse named Prince. Dan wasn't used to having another horse so close and when the team was moving at some speed approaching the fence, Dan shied to the left, pulled Prince with him, and the metal wagon tongue struck a 6" steel fence post and shattered. The broken end of the tongue which was still attached to the wagon stabbed forward. With Dan jammed against the fence, the jagged tongue tore out a piece of Dan's hind leg the size of a cigarette pack.
Our first priority was to make sure Dan would be all right. We cut away the flap of meat, cleaned, dressed and wrapped the wound, and established that he could still walk out sound. Next we welded the wagon tongue back together and repaired the wagon.
We needed to get Dan back to the wagon and working again, not leave him to mull over a terrifying and painful experience. We hitched the team together, ground drove them a short while, and as shown in the photo on the left, both Prince and Dan backed compentently to the wagon, separated by the wagon tongue.
After attaching the tugs, we started out easy and built up Dan's confidence. He wasn't afraid of the wagon, nor was he afraid of Prince, however he did make sure he didn't get too close to the fence at any speed greater than a walk. Within about ten minutes he was working as if nothing bad had happened.
Some key points here include the handlers not getting emotionally caught up in the accident. As soon as we established that Dan was not seriously injured, we set about solving the problems and stayed emotionally "neutral" and supportive. We backed up to an point in the day's training where everything worked fine and restored the "normal routine". We approached the wagon with the horses as if there was nothing to fear. (We didn't want Dan to associate the wagon with anxiety.)
Dan continued in "learning mode." His fear prompted him to assume a closer and more appropriate position next to Prince. As we approached the location of the wreck, we compensated for his anxiety by giving him rein aids to occupy his mind. We were able to convey that neither the wagon or Prince was anything to fear. It took a few passes by the fence, however, for him not to be anxious about going alongside it at a trot. Before the morning was through, Dan was driving out on the road.
In this event we managed fear, letting it heighten our levels of awareness, keeping both horses and humans alert and attentive, but we didn't allow it to grow to the point that we couldn't perform effectively.
More to follow...
For related information, see "Staying a Kick Away".
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